Conjunctivitis in Cats

Cat eye close-up

Todorean Gabriel / Getty Images 

Conjunctivitis is a common eye problem in cats. There are two different kinds of conjunctivitis and several causes of this ocular issue. Cat owners should be familiar with the signs of conjunctivitis in order to keep their cat comfortable and also prevent it from spreading.

What Is Conjunctivitis in Cats?

Commonly referred to as pink eye, conjunctivitis is a problem that affects the eyes of cats. Conjunctivitis causes inflammation of the pink tissues surrounding the eye called the conjunctiva and can affect just one or both eyes at the same time.

Two types of conjunctivitis exist in cats - infectious and non-infectious. Both varieties of conjunctivitis have the same symptoms but are different based on how they are caused.

Signs of Conjunctivitis in Cats

  • Increased redness and swelling around the eye
  • Squinting or keeping its eye shut
  • Excessive blinking
  • White or yellow eye discharge
  • Rubbing or pawing at its eye
  • Excessive eye watering

One obvious sign of conjunctivitis in a cat is when there is an increase in how red or pink the fleshy part around the eye is. When a cat has conjunctivitis, this part of the eye becomes inflamed and with inflammation comes swelling. This causes pain and discomfort so the eye will be held shut or a cat will squint or blink excessively because of it. Sometimes the eye will also water or even develop discharge from the conjunctivitis leaving the eye area wet or looking dirty. Finally, because a cat with conjunctivitis is uncomfortable, it will often rub its eye on furniture or the carpet or paw at it.

White cat with conjunctivitis squinting.
Merche Portu / Getty Images

Causes of Conjunctivitis in Cats

The causes of conjunctivitis determine whether or not it is classified as the infectious or non-infectious type of conjunctivitis.

  • Viruses: If conjunctivitis is caused by a virus it is considered to be the infectious type. The most commonly seen type of virus that can cause conjunctivitis is the feline herpesvirus type-1, also known as feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR). This virus also causes a variety of respiratory symptoms, including sneezing, and can spread from cat to cat.
  • Bacteria: Another type of infectious conjunctivitis is caused by bacteria. Staphylococci, Streptococci, and Chlamydophila bacteria can infect the eyes of cats and cause conjunctivitis along with other issues. These types of infections are also contagious from cat to cat.
  • Environmental irritants: Dust, mold, smoke, poor air quality, air fresheners, and other things in a home that could cause eye irritation can cause conjunctivitis. Even pet shampoo and dirt that gets in a cat's eyes can cause conjunctivitis because of how irritating it can be. These things can all cause the non-infectious type of conjunctivitis.

Diagnosing Conjunctivitis in Cats

A veterinarian will perform a full physical examination in order to determine whether or not a cat has conjunctivitis. Often times conjunctivitis will also occur with other problems including respiratory diseases and other eye issues. An ophthalmoscope may be used to get a better look at a cat's eye and various tests may also need to be run to ensure there aren't other eye problems associated with the conjunctivitis. Special eye stains and tearing tests are commonly used.

Treatment of Conjunctivitis in Cats

The conjunctivitis itself will be treated with special eye drops but the underlying reason for the conjunctivitis may have additional treatments. Immune boosting supplements, steroids, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and other medications may all be recommended depending on the reason for the conjunctivitis. A warm, wet cloth may also help relieve some discomfort and help to clean the affected eye.

How to Prevent Conjunctivitis in Cats

Keeping a clean environment will help prevent the non-infectious type of conjunctivitis but it may be harder to prevent the infectious type. Infected cats should be kept away from other felines in order to decrease the spread of infectious conjunctivitis and immune supplements may help to boost the immune system of exposed cats. People should also wash their hands thoroughly after handling infected cats.

Is Conjunctivitis Contagious to People?

Neither the infectious or non-infectious type of conjunctivitis is contagious to people but people can spread infectious conjunctivitis to other cats just by touching them. If a person has pet a cat that has herpesvirus type-1 or obvious conjunctivitis they should always wash their hands before handling any other cat, even if they aren't sure if the cat they touched had an infectious type of conjunctivitis. It is better to be safe than sorry and limit a cat's exposure to viruses and bacteria whenever possible.